It’s hard to keep up with a movie that is constantly changing its story. It’s even harder when that story is stranger than fiction and may even be fiction — but about a real person. Such is the case of “Sister Aimee,” writers-directors Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann’s (“Canary”) film that scrambles together a mix of rumors and fantasies about notorious evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. But the finished product fails to say much about these tales.
It’s worth noting that a woman who is actually able to control her narrative, even filling it with lies, without it being usurped by a man’s perspective in any era is an extraordinary feat. But that’s especially true in 1926, when we first meet Sister Aimee (Anna Margaret Hollyman, “Sleeping with Other People”) as she’s wrapping up yet another breathless healing service where she miraculously cures her subject while remaining stupendously dissatisfied. She’s craving something different that will reenergize her relationship with her work.
And that’s not coming from casual sex with random men (cue Kenny, played by Michael Mosley, “Peppermint”) backstage at her revivals, but rather a complete reproach of her own image to get her devotees’ tongues flapping. She stumbles onto this idea while sleeping with Kenny, a man too occupied with his own reverie of becoming a “hard” journalist who uncovers the real story of Pancho Villa to realize that she is claiming his fantasy as her own.
Aimee decides to abandon her parish and set off through the desert to Mexico to chase this story. This is where things start to get convoluted, as Buck and Schlingmann attempt to weave Sister Aimee’s quest for the truth (bringing along an oblivious Kenny) as she redesigns her own story back home to keep her believers talking about her while she’s away. As an evangelist whose work demands a level of unequivocal belief, Sister Aimee is already a master storyteller with a flair of theatrics — a type of manipulation rarely attributed to a woman of the cloth in film, much less in real life. (That flighty and unapologetic air carries through in Graham Reynolds’ memorable score, which includes the fancy-free “Somebody Stole My Gal.”)
Back at home, the church chatter is fanned by Sister Aimee’s closest friends and enemies, who are wrangled and questioned one-by-one at the police station about the preacher’s whereabouts. Among them is assistant Hazel (Lee Eddy, “Mercy Black”), who insists that Sister Aimee merely “evaporated” so that her followers could tell her story. (It’s tough to tell with all the back and forth how Sister Aimee is orchestrating these tales for Hazel to disseminate among the crowd).
Then there is rival Brother Billy Sunday (Bill Wise, “Support the Girls”), at once elated by uber-popular Sister Aimee’s absence and frustrated that she remains foremost in the minds of even his own congregation. And finally, we meet Sister Aimee’s ex-husband Harold (Macon Blair, “American Woman”), who is unsurprised that his fickle former wife has once again flown the coop. Regardless, people are talking. Even more fun for Sister Aimee, the newspapers are breathlessly chronicling her mysterious departure.
That’s all juxtaposed with Sister Aimee’s winding pursuit in the desert, picking up newspapers along the way to keep up with her own tabloid story, which brings her and Kenny to Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz, “Christmas, Again”) whom they initially use as a guide along their travels. But Sister Aimee and Rey develop a surprisingly significant bond as they discover that their relationships with their complicated legacies are filled with equal yearning.
Had there been less of the police-station interrogations back at home and more of Sister Aimee and Rey’s relationship, “Sister Aimee” would be grounded in something much more resonant than simply a theatrical church performer who decides to generate some fluff press coverage to add some spark to her life. The gendered themes at play here do little to boost the quality of Buck and Schlingmann’s storytelling, which is too tangled to follow at times.
Sister Aimee as a character is quite fascinating, but there is far too much surrounding her characterization. Who was she outside of the tale-spinning? We get some of that in her relationship with Rey, who’s also really interesting to watch, but even that is marred by even more fables of gun-slinging men. Stacking the story is the very real truth about religious restrictions in Mexico at the time, which ultimately redirect Sister Aimee altogether.
“Sister Aimee” ends up being overwrought with its antiheroine’s revisions to her own story, how the world around her revises those revisions to fit their own needs, and whatever Buck and Schlingmann make up — as their disclaimer reads, “5% is real and the rest is imagination.” While Hollyman and Suarez Paz wonderfully evoke the film’s emotional core, they ultimately can’t extricate their performances from the disorganization of the narrative.